Spearheading a Successful Union Drive: An Interview ILGWU workers on strike, demanding higher wages and promoting unionization. Harry Rubenstein, ILGWU, 1958. Archived at the Kheel Center.

Spearheading a Successful Union Drive: An Interview

A Detroit DSA member helped lead a union organizing drive this summer and fall where every single worker signed a union card and then voted for the union. Now they’re bargaining for a contract that will, they hope, give them raises and end management’s arbitrary and disrespectful approach to scheduling.

It’s a small shop, with just 10 workers in the summer peak season. The steps in many union drives are similar: You discover what the issues are that have people dissatisfied. You find leaders. You make sure everyone is talked to. You allay fears with solid information.

DSA encourages members to organize a union where they work or to get a job where there’s already a union. I interviewed this DSA member about their unionization drive to gain insights into the process and draw out some key lessons that might be applicable more broadly. What follows below is the Q & A, edited lightly for clarity.


Tell us about the work itself and whether it helped or hurt the ability to organize.

Detroit has a cycle-share system. At a kiosk people rent a bike for a certain amount of time and they’re supposed to turn it in. People don’t park their bike at the same station they rented it from, so over time the system will get unbalanced. My job is to go out and keep the system balanced. I drive a van to shuttle bikes from place to place, I do minor repairs and station maintenance. I’ve also done dispatch: you tell the re-balancers where to go.

We operate out of a warehouse and as a result we are able to see each other during the summer when it’s all hands on deck. You work with someone different almost every day. And some people are in the workshop constantly who see everybody. There’s also a shift change when it’s easy to talk to people.

What is the workforce like?

The workforce is at a peak during the summer with 10 non-management employees. All are Black except me and one other, and half are women. They’re mostly young and didn’t have a lot of experience in this job.

Pay is about $14 for most people, but it varied. People got raises randomly. To get a raise you had to threaten to quit; that usually worked after several times.

They only started giving benefits when we started to unionize — they made some key people full-time. People found it insulting. “Now that I’m making some noise, this thing I was entitled to for years….” These were people who had been working the same hours for a couple of years. This was the only move the company did against the union, to their credit.

Did you have some people part-time and some full-time?

It was fuzzy. At different seasons they have people on for such varied hours. They kept people at 38 hours and called it part-time. Some worked less.

Management had us sign a handbook when we started, it looked quite generous: 9 paid holidays, a health package. But when you asked for it, they said, “that’s only for management.” As people would complain as individuals they might be able to get pieces, but not all of it. Then when we started to unionize, they told two people, “you’re retroactively covered.”

How long has this company been around?

Four years. One worker has been there since the beginning, and two people for two years. Turnover was high. Hours are severely cut in the winter.

What were the working conditions that needed changing?

Scheduling. The schedule consistently only came out a couple days before it came into effect. If the schedule started on Monday, we got it Saturday or Friday, and then sometimes there were changes to it. Every week you could have a schedule with different days off or different hours. Why not make the schedule two weeks out? It was a quick way to piss people off.

You had a specific goal in mind — to win a vote to bring in a union. But what was your rationale behind that goal?

Everybody had as individuals, for years, their own battles with management. One person trying to get time off, another person trying to get a raise. Everyone having constant fights with management, as individuals. We brought people to a park, got people talking, and we saw how ubiquitous it was, the need to have yelling matches with management to get anything. It seemed obvious real soon: we can get a contract and have a formula. We showed them the contract TWU [Transport Workers Union] has for a company that runs cycle-share systems in New York, the Bay Area, Washington, D.C.: raises, vacation, health insurance.

Organize and Take the Big Bag by Jon Lynch, Industrial Pioneer, June 1925.

Did anyone have union experience or knowledge?

Just a general sense, vaguely pro-union sentiments. We didn’t get anybody who was anti-union. One of my co-workers is in school for a building trades apprenticeship.

How did you find folks who could be potential leaders? Were there one or two people who were essentially co-leaders of the campaign?

One of my coworkers was a go-getter, willing to put himself out there, not afraid of management at all. Furthermore, he was a mechanic; he was in a strategic position in the warehouse, where people came in.

What was the hardest thing about convincing people to be interested or to think it was worthwhile to organize a union?

It’s kind of scary to do that. You can be fired. The hardest part was getting people to realize that if we all stick together we’ll be OK.

Were they skeptical that people would stick together?

Sometimes. Once you could get alone with people and talk outside of work, you could convince them. That was difficult because of the pandemic; we had to meet outside.

What was your first step? Second? Third? Did they flow naturally? Did you have an organizing template? Did you find that useful or did events change it?

We made plans: who’s going to talk to who and when. We needed to plan that out, starting with the people we had the most trust in, those we were sure would be on board, and ending with those we were least sure about.

A key to success was being able to keep a lid on things. Management didn’t find out we were organizing the union till we told them, and we told them when we already had all of our cards signed. We got 100%.

I think that was partly why management didn’t really run an anti-union campaign. If they’re going to break the law and start firing people, it’s usually before the certification [that the workers have enough cards signed to call for an election]. We had the certification, and then the election a month later.

There are some advantages to organizing in a small workplace. What lessons do you think would still apply in a large workplace?

A lot of the basic skills are the same, talking to people, identifying who the leaders are, making a plan, keeping things quiet. That becomes harder when you’re dealing with more people.

I messed up by trying to talk to people right off the bat with “so, hey, what are the problems here?” At least one person thought I was a management spy. I had to pull back.

I would not recommend anybody do what I did — go into a small place on the basis that it was a “hot shop,” ripe for organizing. It was good for forming skills but there’s been a lot of points where I’ve been very lucky.

We were already in contact with TWU, me and the other main person, through Labor Notes, right after I got the job. And with people who helped organize at the other TWU cycle-share shops and with rank-and-file people and with our union rep, who was out of state.

I will hand it to our rep. Despite it being a small shop, he was very attentive, very helpful. Always willing to pick up the phone. He explained to me it’s his job to get us a contract, not to tell us what we should be organizing for.

We had a weekly check-in where we talked and built up some plans. Toward the end he came to Detroit to collect the physical cards.

What was the time frame?

I got the job in June. We filed with the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] for the election in early October. The vote was early November with mail-in ballots, and the counting was via Zoom. Now we’re in bargaining.

Did socialism ever come up?

It did when people would ask. Because I’d only worked there a couple months, and all of a sudden they’re in a meeting with me and I have all this knowledge about unions. I’d say, “I’m in DSA. That was part of the motivation for getting this job.” People mostly didn’t give a shit.

It was an explanation of why I know all this stuff. That and that I come from a union family.

What was the most important thing you learned about organizing?

Take your time. Everything depends on people trusting you. People trust you if you’re a good co-worker. And thank god the other guy was there. He had a lot of credibility because he’d been there a year and a half.


Reposted from The Detroit Socialist